Willie O’Ree is far from a household name when it comes to hockey fandom, which is a shame considering in 1958 he broke the NHL’s color barrier, skating for the Boston Bruins of all teams. O’Ree wrote a great piece for the Players’ Tribune on January 1 — I recently discovered it, prompting me to share my thoughts — in which he discusses being a black kid playing a white sport, as well as meeting his idol, Jackie Robinson, and his efforts to increase diversity in the world of hockey.
Now 80, O’Ree reflects back on his moment in sports history, meeting Jackie Robinson, not once, but twice at two different points in his life. As a young kid playing baseball, O’Ree and his team were treated with a visit to a Brooklyn Dodgers game, where, of course, Robinson was the highlight. When O’Ree shared his love for hockey to his idol, Robinson promptly responded, “I didn’t know black kids played hockey.” Years later at a NAACP luncheon, O’Ree once again was greeted by Jackie Robinson. Reading that Robinson remembered O’Ree as the 14-year-old who loved hockey made me absolutely fall in love with this story.
“I didn’t know black kids played hockey.” That’s a sentiment O’Ree says he still hears today, and for many people who only check in on hockey periodically, they’d be surprised, too, that black kids do indeed play hockey. The sport remains one of the whitest around the world, but folks like O’Ree continue to work for diversity, on and off the ice.
He shared a story of meeting young Gerald Coleman who was determined to be an NHL goalie. That determination and the efforts of O’Ree as the NHL’s director of youth development for the league’s diversity task force helped Coleman enjoy an unnoticeable, unspectacular 10-year career in professional hockey.
If Coleman isn’t a name you remember, as I certainly didn’t, there are plenty of faces representing diversity around the league. Obviously the player who comes to mind is P.K. Subban, a player we Bruins fans know too well – and a player who would look so much better in black and gold, instead of the bleu, blanc and rouge of the Montreal Canadiens. As much as we hate when the Bruins play against him, Subban is one of the most marketable, personable and flat-out enjoyable players and personalities in the league. Along with Subban, Dustin Byfuglien is one of the best and, appropriately, highest-paid defensemen in the league, and players like Wayne Simmonds for the Flyers, Seth Jones for Columbus, Evander Kane for Buffalo and Joel Ward in San Jose are just a few of the more well-known black players in the league. It’s still a small number, but the sport has become more diverse, and we should continue to see that trend in the future.
As O’Ree writes, he wasn’t even aware he was breaking the NHL’s color barrier, until after he saw his name in the headlines. After his short career in the NHL, and a much longer stint in the WHL, O’Ree says more inclusion in the game for black players, now, in the year 2016, hasn’t removed the ugly sense of racism and intolerance that minorities face on a daily basis. He shares how a complete stranger spewed racial epithets right to his face recently, when asked about the racism he faced “back then.” While acknowledging some of the horribleness he did face as a black man in a white man’s sport, at the dawn of the Civil Rights Era, he mentions that there is still a great deal of racism today. He specifically mentions Simmonds, who experienced horrible fans throwing bananas on the ice, just four years ago.
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These terrible incidents remind me of what happened much closer to home, as a Bruins fan. Just four years ago, the Bruins were ousted in the Conference Quarter-Finals by the Washington Capitals. Joel Ward scored the OT game-winner in Game 7, and the response on social media was ugly, shameful and disgusting, with some of the most unimaginable remarks being directed at Ward. A moment that was probably so great for so many hopeful, young and black hockey players was overshadowed by the stark reality that some people still can’t tolerate differences in skin color.
Boston sports have had an unfortunate history when it comes to racism, most notably with the Red Sox infamously being the last Major League team to incorporate black players. The namesake of one of Boston’s most famous landmarks, Tom Yawkey, the former Sox owner, passed on a chance to sign Jackie Robinson, and was a noted racist, even for his time. It wouldn’t be until 1959 – 12 years after Robinson made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers – that the Red Sox signed Pumpsie Green. That ugly bit of history has some calling, like Boston Globe columnist, Adrian Walker, to change the name of Yawkey Way.
It amazes me that O’Ree hasn’t become more of a hero for Boston sports fans. His recollection of his first game, describing the support from legendary Bruins coach Milt Schmidt and general manager Lynn Patrick, and not even realizing he was breaking the NHL’s color barrier, is well worth the read. As constituted now, the Bruins are, like most teams in the NHL, full of white dudes, but the now-injured Malcom Subban – P.K.’s younger brother – is a promising goalie prospect in the Boston pipeline. Hopefully in a year or so, he’ll be helping out guys like O’Ree in making the NHL a more diverse, richer and overall better game.